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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams. In Mexico, drug-related violence reached new heights in 2008. There are more than 5,000 homicides linked to drugs, more than double the number the year before.

COHEN: This week on Day to Day, we're airing a three-part series from the Mexican city of Juarez. It's just across the border from El Paso. Juarez is one of the main weigh stations for narcotics shipped from South America into the U.S. It's a place where even the most gruesome murders have come to seem almost normal. Here's independent producer Scott Carrier.

SCOTT CARRIER: The most popular daily newspaper in Juarez is a tabloid called PM even though it comes out in the morning. Most of the time on the cover, there's a large photo of dead bodies from the night before. And most of the time, next to this large photo, there'll be a smaller photo of a smiling, nearly naked young woman with big breasts.

Inside, along with some news stories, there are more photos of bodies, smaller for the dead men, larger for the nearly naked women, including a centerfold. Did I mention it's the most popular newspaper in Juarez?

We're in a car with one of PM's photojournalists, 57-year-old Ernesto Rodriguez(ph). His job is to get to the execution sites and photograph the crime scenes before the bodies are taken away to the morgue. To do this, he spends a lot of time zipping through traffic while talking on his cell phone and listening to the police radio at the same time.

Mr. ERNESTO RODRIGUEZ (Photojournalist, PM Newspaper): (Through translator) I've worked about 29 years for Juarez newspapers. It's never, never been this bad. There are way too many murders because of organized crimes. I don't stop working from the time my shift starts. Coming and going from murder scenes, I'm always running. And now, the crimes are really, really violent. Before there were gang killings, but not so terrible as those we see now. They kill in ways that cause terror, the way they kill their enemies.

CARRIER: It's close to midnight, the middle of June, a full moon, and we're at the scene of an execution, a side street off a tree-lined boulevard, some shops, some houses, a bar. There are flashing lights, blue, red, and yellow from police vehicles. Mexican soldiers wearing helmets and black ski masks wait in the back of trucks. Yellow caution tape holds back a crowd of onlookers.

More than 50 people, whole families standing together quietly, whispering, looking across the yellow tape to a 1990s Lincoln Town Car under a street light. The window on the driver's side has a big hole in it. Inside - you can barely see it in the flashing lights - is the body of a man sitting behind the wheel, his head resting on his right shoulder. Everybody in the crowd knows the story.

The man was the owner of the bar, La Academia(ph), just across the street. He was sitting in his car outside his bar, and somebody walked up and put a bunch of bullets into his body. It's a mild scene compared to some others. Jose Luis Gonzales(ph) and Angel Cervantes(ph) are also photojournalists in Juarez, and they've seen much worse.

Mr. JOSE LUIS GONZALES (Photojournalist): (Through translator) In past years, you may have seen someone executed but not in the same circumstances that we see now. I think God has a purpose for this city. The scenes are really powerful, sometimes people with their heads and brains destroyed, their hands, their bodies torn apart.

We go out on the street or to some restaurant, even to a mall or some other shopping center, and some gunfire might break out, or you might find someone who has been executed. I'll say it again. God has a purpose for this city, and I think everything is going to change.

Mr. ANGEL CERVANTES (Photojournalist): (Through translator) We're living in a war, a real war where they execute men. How many is it - 15 or more than 10 a day, where there is no pity toward children. I have seen the worst. I saw a little girl who was with her mother leaving a garage. And in the cross fire, the little girl was hit in the head, and she had a little stuffed bear in her arms, and she had a bullet in her head.

Yeah, I've thought about leaving, going to the United States to El Paso, the nearest city because of the war we're living in. It's just not good here in Juarez any more, not for a reporter or for anyone else.

CARRIER: The body of the bar owner sits in the car behind the wheel while policemen and soldiers stand around talking, taking pictures and notes, counting bullet shells on the ground, acting as though they are beginning an investigation. But the chances there will actually be an investigation are close to zero, as nearly all violent crimes in Juarez go unpunished, and everybody here knows this.

So this police work is a show. It's a ritual. The police and the army bring the flashing lights and the ski masks, the flak jackets and the caution tape. They block off the stage around the dead body, and the onlookers - people from the neighborhood, people who'd stopped while driving by - they stand like they're in a church at a mass. But instead of organ music and a choir, there's the sound of voices talking over a police radio.

After two hours, the body is taken from the car, placed on a stretcher, covered with a white sheet, and then lifted by four men into the back of a white van. The van drives away. The crowd disperses. The ceremony is over. But the ritual will not be completed until tomorrow morning, when a photo of the man's body behind the steering wheel appears in the tabloid PM next to photos of nearly naked young woman.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Carrier.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: This story was produced by Julianne Cardonez(ph), Scott Carrier, and Lisa Miller for hearingvoices.com.

You can explore more of Juarez and other border towns in an interactive map. It's found in our website, npr.org.

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